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Electronic textbook update

Last year, the Lege passed a law that allowed school districts to provide electronic textbooks instead of the traditional kind as a way to save money. The bidding process to provide these texts is now going on.

With Texas budgeted to spend $812 million on textbooks in 2010, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, hopes schools give serious consideration to the non-traditional options that will become available for purchase starting next month.

“This is such a rare chance in a legislative career to find something we can do better and faster and actually cheaper,” Hochberg said.

Schools are required to provide a classroom set of instructional materials, and were previously limited to state-approved textbooks, almost all of which are traditional books. The state set a maximum price for the books, and, most vendors’ bids came within a few pennies of the maximum.

Because of that, few school districts were able to capitalize on a textbook credit that allows them to keep half of any savings they achieve by not spending the maximum allotment. In the last two years, districts earned only $172,000 in credits.

The expanded electronic options should give districts more chance to leverage the credit, Hochberg said.

Hard to say how much savings there might be, but given how strapped for cash school districts are these days, almost anything reasonable is worth a try. The potential here is pretty high. We’ll see how it goes. And there’s another potential benefit:

While the new delivery mode could save Texas millions of dollars, some leaders worry that it circumvents the public input provided by the textbook adoption process. Such a process could reduce the sort of debate that raged earlier this month as the State Board of Education considered setting the standards for a new social studies curriculum.

Critics also worry that students won’t all have the same access to electronic texts.

“This is a move in the wrong direction,” said David Bradley, a Republican State Board of Education member from Beaumont. “For all the best intentions of the Legislature, there was a defect in the thinking: There’s no accountability to the public.”

I’d call circumventing the clown show process run by the SBOE a feature, not a bug. Also, as electronic textbooks are adopted nationwide, the influence of Texas and crazies like Bradley will be diminished, since it’s much cheaper and easier to edit out whatever stupidity they insist on putting in than it would be for printed texts. All in all, I’m not seeing much downside here.

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